State may seek parenting role with youngest kids

March 21, 2013

By Katy Grimes

state_of_the_union_photoSACRAMENTO — In his February State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama asserted there was a vast need for universal preschool and said he would find the funding to send to state programs. While many parents aren’t crazy about the idea of the state getting control of their kids at an even earlier age, the California Legislature has latched on to Obama’s plan.

“The subcommittees will consider how California’s children are cared for, especially in their early years when developmental gains are critical,” said the agenda for a joint hearing on Wednesday of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services and the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance.

The hearing focused on California’s supposed need for universal preschool. But many lawmakers were deaf to empirical evidence showing that the benefits of preschool are gone by the time children reach the third grade.

When government employees talk about your kids’ needs, watch out — it’s just one big social engineering experiment. What should have been an honest discussion about the need for more child care was preempted with exaggerated claims about early childhood education programs. This raises the question about whether the real goal of the preschool-for-all push is to expand the scope of state-run public schools and thus create more unionized government jobs.

Californians have already rejected ‘preschool for all’

meathead--228x283The push for universal preschool has been underway for many years and has international roots. Universal preschool proposals call for replacing the existing private parent-driven preschool system with a taxpayer-funded system that would add at least two years of mandatory preschool for all children onto the current K-12 public education system.

California has already tried to pass “preschool for all.” In 2006, Proposition 82, a ballot initiative proposed by “All in the Family” star and movie director Rob Reiner, would have created a free, voluntary, half-day public preschool program available to all 4-year olds.

To pay for the program, the state of California would have imposed a new tax on high-income individuals. The new tax would have applied to individuals earning over $400,000 annually, and to couples earning over $800,000 annually. But the Legislative Analyst’s Office reported at the time more than 66 percent of preschool aged children were already attending preschool.

Prop. 82 was defeated 60.8 percent to 39.2 percent.

But now some legislators want the state to have even even more control of kids than Reiner envisioned — starting not long after birth, because that is when the brain undergoes crucial development. At Wednesday’s hearing, advocates and several lawmakers all made clear that they think they know better than parents how to raise California’s young children.

Discredited official offered as credible witness

Delaine Easton_0Delaine Eastin, former California superintendent of schools, lobbied for the benefits of preschool at the hearing.

“It helps the parents if we give these kids preschool,” she testified. “It starts with a connection before age 5.” Eastin said mandatory universal public preschool provides a good return on investment. However, she did not acknowledge that the majority of California’s preschool-age children already attend some type of preschool program.

Given her sordid history, the decision to present Eastin as a credible witness was odd. When she was state superintendent during the 1990s, the California Department of Education was doling out millions in funds for English language instruction to various politically connected community-based organizations which were not entitled to receive it.

Department auditor James Lindberg blew the whistle on this massive $20 million fraud by bringing it to the attention of Eastin. But to the surprise of Lindberg, Eastin retaliated against him. She demoted Lindberg and kept the scam going. The community-based groups, some for-profit organizations, received the money instead of it going to English-language instruction for immigrants.

In 2002, a jury awarded Lindberg $4 million and held Eastin personally liable for nearly $1.4 million of the sum, with $150,000 in punitive damages because she had “acted with malice.” There were later court twists and turns, but Eastin’s central role in the scandal was plain.

This is relevant because the federal preschool program, Head Start, also has a long history of fraud.

There was testimony from individuals without the baggage of scandal. “Poor families don’t have many options for young child care,” said Ross Thompson, a professor with University of California, Davis. “It’s a bad situation for human capital development.”

Thompson said children growing up in economically distressed families have less language skills and slower development than children of the well-off. Thompson said the earlier children are in school, the better their impulse control develops, and they learn to manage their emotions. “Toxic stress causes children to overreact to situations,” Thompson explained, referring to children in economically distressed homes.

“Preschool can provide benefits on a larger statewide basis,” Thompson said. While he spoke, the audience, filled with members of the California Teachers Association, nodded, quietly clapped and waved hands.

Studies rebut claims about preschool programs

HeadStartWhile most of the committee appeared to agree with Thompson and Eastin, Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, did not.

“We need to know what is accurate and factual,” Nestande said. He cited a recent federal Health and Human Services study which found any cognitive advantages children gained in the early childhood education program Head Start was gone by the third grade.

“According to the congressionally mandated report, Head Start has little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health or parenting practices of its participants. In fact, on a few measures, access to the program actually produced negative effects,” Fox News reported.

Head Start is the $8 billion per year federal preschool program, designed to improve the kindergarten readiness of low-income children. Since its inception in 1965, Head Start has cost taxpayers $180 billion.

“The study also revealed that Head Start failed to improve the literacy, math and language skills of the 4-year-old cohort and had a negative impact on the teacher-assessed math ability of the 3-year-old cohort,” Fox News noted.

Nestande said the Brookings Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Stanford and UC Berkeley also did similar studies with similar results.

“You raise an important point and one researchers have struggled with,” Thompson said. But he said some university studies are showing positive results.

Nestande cited the Berkeley study results showing no benefits to preschool. “I’d be happy to look at the Berkeley study,” Thompson said. “But we shouldn’t hang on one study or one program.”

Five decades of proof that Head Start is a flop

The Heritage Foundation, however, says the evidence is long and conclusive: “After five decades, Head Start continues to default on its aim to boost school readiness. … In addition to the program’s overall ineffectiveness, there are government reports of fraud in the program. Yet Head Start continues to receive billions of taxpayer dollars every year.”

Awareness of these facts may have been one reason Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget cut access to some of the state-subsidized preschool programs to low-income families with parents who do not work. Previously, even families with parents at home were receiving the state preschool subsidy.

But despite fraud and lack of long-term results, the Democrats who control the Legislature continue to push state-funded preschool. “Staff believes there is evidence to conclude that there are at least three reasons why the state investment in this area have provided benefits to all Californians and is worthy of consideration for additional resources when the state again has the capacity to invest,” the committee agenda and overview said.

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